Lies, Damned Lies and Embellishments

Details matter.

When it comes to the million little factoids that make up a person’s life—particularly when that person promulgates those factoids in the course of running for public office—vagueness and imprecision simply will not do.

Wendy Davis, a Texas state senator now running for governor, finds her gubernatorial campaign under siege in light of certain supposed facts about her background having been proved false.

Davis became nationally-known last June when she spoke against an anti-abortion bill on the Texas Senate floor for 11 hours straight.  Now seeking the highest office in the state, she has centered much of her candidacy on her experience as a young, poor single mother who managed to achieve an exceptional career in academia and law more or less on her own.

“She began working after school at 14 to help support her single mother and three siblings,” reads her bio on the State Senate website.  “By 19, Wendy was a single mother herself, working two jobs to make ends meet in hopes of creating a better life for her young daughter.”

Similarly, a video on Davis’s campaign homepage has her elder daughter explaining, “She married young and by 19 was divorced and raising me as a single mother,” adding, “They say everything’s bigger in Texas.  Well, that certainly wasn’t the case for the trailer we lived in.”

As well, the campaign site’s bio reads, “With the help of academic scholarships, student loans, and state and federal grants, Wendy became the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, graduated first in her class, and went on to Harvard Law School.”

Upon further review, we find that all of these details about Davis’s life are true—except for the parts that are not.

As reported last Sunday by the Dallas Morning News, it turns out that while Davis separated from her first husband at age 19, they were not formally divorced until she was 21.  She and her daughter did live in a mobile home, but only for a few months before moving in with Davis’s mother and then getting an apartment of their own.

Additionally, while her education was indeed partly funded by scholarships and government grants, it was also made possible by Davis’s second husband, who paid the tuition for her final two years at Texas Christian University and her final year at Harvard Law School.

In short:  Without approaching outright fabrication, Davis embellished, contorted and cherry-picked the details of her upbringing in order to seem as appealing as possible to the good people of Texas, and to put forth a personal narrative that ties perfectly with her stated policy principles—not least regarding the empowerment of women—in her pursuit of political power.

While there is no mystery as to why she—or anyone—might resort to such machinations (see previous paragraph), in this case I am compelled to ask that question nonetheless.

Studying the discrepancies between the facts and Davis’s claims, one wonders how it could have possibly been worth her while.

I would posit—and I think most would agree—that there is nothing inherently less honorable about being a 21-year-old divorced single mother compared to being a 19-year-old divorced single mother.  Wouldn’t any voter drawn to the inspiring grit of the latter be equally enamored of the former?

Politically speaking, Davis’s origin story is a goldmine as it is.  Why exaggerate the particulars when the truth is plenty compelling enough?  By embellishing, even just a little bit, Davis accomplished nothing except making herself vulnerable to charges of being a liar and a fraud.

That’s not to say she actually is either of those things.  In the garden of political deviousness, her so-called “misstatements” are extremely small potatoes, indeed.  By themselves, they should not (and probably will not) cause irreparable damage to her campaign or her career.

And yet.

We live in an age in which no assertion gets past online “fact checkers” and everything is subject to the greatest possible scrutiny.  Like it or not, every public official knows this to be true and has been made to behave accordingly.

As much as we might disapprove of a political and media system in which major attention is focused on the most minor matters—it is, after all, a system that fosters an awful lot of nonsense and unwarranted hysteria—this dynamic is nonetheless grounded in the highly attractive principle of valuing truth over propaganda, and of conducting a public discourse in which facts matter and untruths must be exposed.

Not all lies are created equal, but that does not erase the fact that any lie is still a lie.  Period, full stop.  The foundation of any healthy relationship—personal or political—is a basic trust between the parties involved, and that is something that no one—not least a prospective governor of Texas—ought to forget or forsake.

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